Numerous twitter feeds and blogs reliably inform us that Richard Dawkins ‘no longer speaks for atheism’. I am quite sure that no person or organisation ever spoke for atheism, or ever will. Nonetheless, even atheists who once praised “The God Delusion” are now quick to point out that they will continue to tell their children fairy tales, that they do not believe that rapes can be graded according to their severity and that they think it is perfectly moral to chose to have a child with Down’s Syndrome ( and heaven help us if we now have to make that clear!) For those of us who do not even see much by way of persuasive argument in “The God Delusion”, it is all to easy to forget that there are many reasons to admire Richard Dawkins.
For example, it is impossible to deny his genius for communication. With “The Selfish Gene” Dawkins popularised highly technical work by William Hamilton and George Williams and generated a cult following. Once I started reading “Climbing Mount Improbable” I found it impossible to stop; only afterwards did I realise that Dawkins had captivated me with a detailed discussion of spider’s webs and the flight patterns of vultures!
He also has the decency to speak directly to his audience with considerable clarity. When you disagree with Dawkins, you know exactly where and why.It would have been very easy for Dawkins to dismiss God with a vague statement about the complexity of theism and few hand-waves. Instead we know that Dawkins believes that God would have too much “organised complexity” to function as a good explanation of design. Now, I think that’s a terrible argument. But I could not make that assessment if Dawkins had not the courtesy to spell his objection out in detail.
As for his recent comments on the morality of abortion, logically Dawkins does seem to be committed to the view that it is immoral not to abort a fetus which has been diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. He also insists that the woman’s right to bodily autonomy trumps all other considerations: no-one should be forced to have an abortion. Many will still be offended; indeed, I believe that Dawkins’ views here are objectively monstrous. However, I also believe that he has simply stated the logic behind the abortion industry; and those who have read Peter Singer, Helga Kuhse or John Harris discuss the morality of infanticide will not even raise an eyebrow at Dawkins’ bio-ethics. It is a chilling fact, but there are many more sinister and odious views in the realms of academia. (I suspect that Dawkins is aware of views more ‘controversial’ than his own, and this might explain his genuine shock at the public’s reaction to his tweets.)
However, it is Dawkins tragic genius for publicity that we should reflect on here. If Professor Dawkins wants a headline, Professor Dawkins shall have a headline. His tweets may be controversial; to my mind, some are insidious. However, they are manna from heaven to journalists desperately searching for an eye-catching headline for their newspaper’s website. The ensuing war on the web forces Richard to explain himself in more detail on his home-site. When the press report this apology or clarification readers will be more likely to visit Dawkins’ site to see for themselves. His readership goes up; the Dawkins brand becomes more recognisable. And in future, anyone who queries Dawkins’ stance on, say, employing Muslim journalists will be excoriated by a Dawkinista for not reading the article which explained what Richard really meant.
Unfortunately, those who are not paying members of the Richard Dawkins fan-club are beginning to find the bi-monthly controversies a bit irritating and predictable. Furthermore, Dawkins is in danger of being dismissed as a cranky old fool who simply doesn’t understand the difference between private and public messages on Twitter. That would be a shame; however much I disagree with him, he remains one of our great public intellectuals. But perhaps Dawkins’ legendary on-line crankiness could be his salvation. Having had a jar of honey confiscated by airport security, Dawkins tweeted to the world that Bin Laden had won after all. He then defended his position in a column in The Guardian. Now that’s entertainment! If Dawkins can be more of a curmudgeon and less of a controversialist, he may yet come out of the Twitter Wars smiling.